In 2016, Heather Staller decided to start an Instagram account. A culinary educator and mother of two, she thought friends and family might be interested in learning more about how she was teaching her kids about cooking and food.
The first picture she posted starred her younger son, wielding a white plastic knife and peering intently at a floret of broccoli in their Swampscott kitchen. “I had no idea it would go anywhere, really,” Staller says.
Today, three years and more than 29,000 followers later, Staller has a dedicated social media fan base, a thriving blog, an e-book, and a new cookbook to her name. Her Little Helpers Toddler Cookbook was released in June, featuring 40 recipes kids and parents can whip up together from snacks to main courses. Each recipe is broken down into steps for kids and step for adults, to educate and engage the whole family. “It’s really about interactive, fun food,” Staller says.
Staller grew up in a family that encouraged her to eat adventurously from an early age and she always loved cooking. After high school she attended Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine, where she majored in Asian Studies and did her homework during the commercial breaks of cooking shows. Eventually she realized she needed to give a culinary career a shot, so when she finished college, she applied to Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Even then, she was already thinking about the importance of passing on a love of food to the next generation. She wrote in her application that she wanted to use her education to teach children how to cook. After culinary school, she worked in restaurants and for caterers before taking a job at Create a Cook in Newton, a cooking school aimed at kids and teens.
Her first son was born six years ago and her second two years later. As her boys grew, Staller honed her ideas and advice about exposing children to new food, getting them to help in the kitchen, and dealing with picky eating. At the heart of her philosophy is the belief that is it never too early to get kids engaged with cooking; the more involved they are, the more open they will be to new foods—even vegetables. Even infants sitting in their high chairs can take in the sights and smells of meal prep, she notes.
Although Staller does not have a background in nutrition, healthy food is important to her. Her e-book, published earlier this year with co-author and fellow Instagrammer Kacie Barnes (find her at @mamknowsnutrition), is called No Sugar, Still Sweet, and is filled with recipes for tasty treats sweetened only with fruit. She loves organic, whole foods, and frequents farmers’ markets.
When she started her Instagram account—find her at @heather.happykidskitchen—she had no real intention of parlaying her pics into something bigger. But around the time she hit 600 followers, she noticed people were reaching out for advice. She had become a figure of trust. And the numbers kept growing.
Last year, she left her job at Create a Cook to focus on her social media presence and her blog. She also started teaching cooking lessons at her sons’ school and a local parenting center. Then, in 2018, a publisher approached her to see if she’d be interested in working on a kid-focused cookbook with them, and she jumped at the chance.
She filled the book with versions of the recipes she’d been sharing on social media and in her cooking classes. There are recipes for twists on traditional favorites like Apple Pie Oatmeal and Chicken Parm Pasta Bake, and some more palate-expanding options like falafel burgers with lemony yogurt sauce and broccoli nuggets. This diversity is by design. It was important to Staller to get people thinking about all the ways they can collaborate with kids in the kitchen. Despite all her success, Staller says she occasionally encounters skeptics who just don’t believe that toddlers can take on cooking tasks. But the doubters don’t bother her.
For more information, visit happykidskitchen.com.